Differentiating Independent Work Stations for the Autism Classroom

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I have to say, I absolutely love independent work! Honestly, who wouldn’t? With independent work, a student fully immerses themselves in an academic or functional task, totally engaged. It’s such a great feeling knowing that while you’re working with other students, the kiddo at the independent station is thriving and making progress. This is exactly why I set up independent work stations in my autism classroom. It’s a game-changer! Today, I’m sharing with you what these stations are and some activities to start using in your classroom once school begins!

This image says, "Differentiating Independent Work Stations for Autism Classrooms and includes examples of file folder and binder activities that can be used in independent work stations.

What Are Independent Work Stations for Autism Classrooms?  

In my classroom, independent work means just that: the student can complete the task independently with no prompting, except for the occasional nudge to stay on task. To do this, it has to be a task the student has already been taught and shown a good amount of competence in. If you move a task too quickly into an independent work station you are just asking for questions.

Make Sure They Are Ready for Independence

Let’s take a look at an example. If I want a student to work on subtraction using task cards where they mark the answer with a clothespin, I need to make sure that the student has shown: they understand subtraction concepts, have shown the ability to complete subtraction problems without help, they have the fine motor strength needed to open and close clothespins. The same level of thought must go into the assignment of each independent work task.

This image shows an example of small group learning.

I know, I know—you’re probably thinking, “Well, duh!” But trust me, I’ve made this mistake in the past more than I would like to admit. It usually happens when you think a student has mastered a skill because you’ve been working with them closely. Then you move that skill to their independent work station, and suddenly, they can’t do it as well as you thought. You realize there was a step you assisted with during direct instruction that they now struggle with independently.

The best advice I can give is this: if you think a student is ready to work independently on something, give it a try when they are with you. And by give it a try I mean give them the task and then sit back and don’t help. You can encourage them with a smile, but if they need more than that, then that task is probably not ready to moved to an independent work station.

Why is Independence Important?

I don’t harp on this just to do so. I do it because I have seen just how quickly an independent work station can go awry and affect the entire class. To understand why, think about the purpose of independent workstations. Generally, students are working independently so you can be working one on one or in a small group with other students. That small group teaching time is precious. The last thing we want is for that time to be interrupted by questions and/or behaviors. When a student is not able to complete independent work independently that is exactly what happens – questions, behaviors, or both.

How to Organize for Independent Work Stations in Autism Classrooms

Through all my learning and experience, I’ve discovered that the key to making independent work stations in my classroom effective is differentiation. It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but in my classroom, it’s absolutely essential.

One of my favorite independent work stations is binderwork. I love binderwork for so many reasons; it is an activity that can stay consistent all year long so that my students know what to do; it is easy to keep organized; and my students love it!

Binderwork Independent Work Stations

I know the name might not be the most creative, but it works! At the beginning of the school year, we spend about a week going over the procedures and expectations for binderwork. We model the tasks. and I even have the paras work 1-on-1 with the students to ensure they are truly independent with these skills before letting them use the station on their own. This preparation is so important and lays the foundation to help the binderwork station be successful.

Collecting Materials for Binders

The first thing I do to prepare for this station is collect materials to place in the binders for my students. Every student in my class will need a 1 inch 3-ring binder. This is where I will keep each of the activities they are assigned.

This image shows a set of colorful file folders, one of my favorite tools when implementing independent work stations for autism!

To make the interactive laminated page, I use file folders. I laminate the pages to make them durable because I know they are going to get a lot of use. In addition to file folders, I stock up on velcro. I always have plenty of velcro on hand to help make the pages interactive. The velcro makes it easy for the kiddos to pull off pieces, move them, and then place them.

The last piece of the puzzle is the actual activity. Where did I get all these great materials? Well, some I created (and you can now find in the Teach Love Autism store), and others are from other fantastic special education teachers who also have stores on TPT! Here are a few of my favorites:

This image shows examples of independent work stations for autism that focus on identifying paper money and coins.

Teach Love Autism Creations

If you’re looking for some fantastic resources to set up independent workstations in your classroom, I highly recommend checking out my TPT store Teach Love Autism. There you’ll find a wide range of work tasks designed to meet various skill levels and needs. These tasks are perfect for creating engaging and effective independent workstations for autism classrooms.

Over the years I have created lots of binderwork tasks. I have pulled them together in the Life Skills Independent Work Binders Mega Bundle that is available in my Teach Love Autism store. This mega bundle is a collection of activities that help your students develop essential life skills while working independently.

Inside you’ll find:

  • Sorting and Matching Tasks: These tasks help your students practice categorizing and organizing items.
  • Money Management Activities: From identifying coins and bills to making change, these activities are perfect for teaching basic financial literacy.
  • Geography Information Practice: Worksheets and activities that help your students learn and remember important landforms, landmarks, the US states, regions, and more!
  • Household Skills: Tasks that focus on explaining each room in a household.
  • Communities Skills: Activities that explain what community members do and that could help students prepare for future employment opportunities.

Setting up the Binders

Once you have gathered all the materials it is time to get them set-up. I begin by creating a 1″ binder for each student in the classroom. I make sure to put their names on the spine so they can easily find their binder. Inside each binder is all their independent work, customized to their individual needs and abilities. The activity stays in their binder until they have reached mastery or until I rotate it out with another activity.

I keep a master binder of all the activities I have created because I can often pull from that when setting up a student’s binder for the week. I promise, you won’t need to create every activity from scratch every time! If you are starting out with binderwork for the first time, just know that the first year has the most prep work. Over time you will see just how often you can resuse an activity for different students.

Monthly Binders for Early Finishers

This image taken from Autism Adventures showcases an effective way to organize student work binders that can be used for independent work stations for autism.
(This image is from Autism Adventures)

In addition to the student binders, I also have monthly binders that are used as early finisher activities. I use Autism Adventures Monthly Independent Work Binders to provide options for my students who finish their binder tasks but still need meaningful activities to finish off the independent work time.

I can’t take all the credit for this idea. Autism Adventures inspired me with these amazing binders. In my classroom, our work time blocks are 15 minutes long. When students are done with their primary tasks, they can pick from any of these monthly binders to work in until the time is up. This way, they have the freedom to choose while still staying on task and engaged.

This system has worked wonderfully in my classroom. It provides another great option for independent work and ensures my students’ schedules are filled with meaningful and engaging tasks. It’s been a game-changer for keeping everyone focused and productive.

One of my fellow bloggers, The Bender Bunch, shares more insights and tips on how to implement similar strategies in your classroom. Make sure to read How to Differentiate Your Centers Easily to learn more!

Independent Work Stations Freebie!

This image highlights a freebie that can be used in your independent work stations for autism! Students can practice sorting and matching using these free resources.

I know that getting started can be the hardest part, so I’ve created a Life Skills Independent Work Binder Freebie that includes a few activities that are perfect to use as binderwork. This sample is free for you to check out and see all the cool types of activities I include in my student’s binders.

The sample includes a variety of activities such as matching tasks, where students match pictures, words, or numbers. Sorting activities that help students practice categorizing items by different attributes like color, shape, or size. Various topics are included in these sample pages for money, time, measurement, community, and more.

This will give you a head start in setting up your own independent workstations. It will help you see how effective and engaging these activities can be for your students.

Get Started With Independent Work Stations

Implementing independent workstations in my classroom has been a game-changer for both my students and me. By differentiating tasks and ensuring each of my students has activities tailored to their skill level, I’ve created a system that keeps everyone engaged and learning. My students are thriving in an environment that balances structure and independence.

Getting started is often the hardest part, but with the right tools and a bit of preparation, you can set your students up for success. For additional info, read more about Work Tasks and Life Skills in your classroom. And. . . don’t forget to check out the freebie sample to kickstart your own independent workstations. Happy teaching, and here’s to fostering more independence in our amazing students!

Save These Tips for Binderwork Work Stations

Remember to save this post to your favorite special education Pinterest board to help you plan out your independent workstations for autism students!

Differentiating independent work stations in autism classrooms can be difficult but is so necessary! In this post, I share tips and resources that will help you effectively differentiate independent work time so you can keep students learning even when conducting small groups in your classroom!

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